School's Out: What *Does* a Feminist Look Like? Teaching Boys About Feminism

A colourful photo of several people of different genders and races and sizes with linked arms wearing shirts proclaiming "this is what a feminist looks like"

I've come across some debates recently on the relationship between males and feminism that have got me thinking about how feminism should be taught to boys and young men (or old men! But I'm trying to keep somewhat on task with the theme of youth, sexuality, and education).

Some of these arguments, written by men, women, and I'm sure others, have been incredibly sensitive and on-point, except that their conclusion—that men cannot really be feminists—left me feeling uncomfortable. And when something makes me uncomfortable, I know I need to understand it better. These arguments have two main points: 1) accepting men as feminists is a perpetuation of patriarchy because men can't remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women, and 2) if you're not politicized by being treated as part of a marginalized category of persons, then you can really only ever be pro- (i.e., men can't be feminists any more than, for instance, white people can be black nationalists).

This race-based comparison that kept cropping up actually raises a lot of questions about the nature of responsible alliance, coalition, and other forms of solidarity work that I'll have to explore in another post. (I often wonder if this kind of thinking doesn't foist the responsibility for problems back onto the oppressed.)

This race analogy also just doesn't fit here. If you're white, you can't choose to identify as black or as a black nationalist because race, being a social construct, functions by the social and material resources that differentially accrue to racialized bodies. The inequalities here have to do with the way your "racial belonging" is perceived. For a white person to claim blackness would be an oppressive act of appropriation. But in my thinking (so far at least), to identify as a feminist is not to identify as a woman. There are a lot of flavors of feminism, for sure, but I've long been under the impression that at its heart, feminism is "the radical notion that women are people" (to trot out that well-worn phrase by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler) and therefore deserving of all the moral worth belonging to their humanity, and all the opportunities which should enable its full expression. Plus, as Bitch says in its FAQ, "feminism isn't all about women—it's about resisting and creating alternatives to systematic oppression."

It seems to me that for a man to call himself a feminist does not imply a structural equivalence with women, just as calling oneself a woman does not imply there is a structural equivalence between differently racialized and sexualized and abled and classed women in an unequal society. My logic may be faulty here, which is why I think this conversation is useful, but I think Third World feminists and other feminists of color especially have developed a way of thinking about how "the social facts of race, class, gender, and sexuality function in individual lives without either reducing individuals to those social determinants" (Paula M.L. Moya, 1997) or disavowing the link between identity and social location as some postmodern thinkers have done in their quest to avoid essentialism and a politics of exclusion.

I think of bell hooks' important writings on the way that second-wave feminism was sometimes at odds with black women's solidarities, effectively forcing them to choose between their oppression as women (requiring them to critique the men of their communities) and their oppression as black people (which meant a critique of the white feminists whose comparative social power authorized the mainstream women's movement). I think of Cherríe Moraga negotiating white women's feminism, negotiating lesbian identity within Chicana/o communities, and eventually developing a "realist feminism" capable of acknowledging that we all possess justifiable knowledge of the world around us and that we possess it because of our own social location.

For a boy or man to identify as feminist does not mean that he claims women's experiences as a whole or that he claims, for example, queer women's experiences, or Indigenous women's experiences. Ideally, I think it means that he is making a commitment to pursue gender justice, which will always also mean pursuing other anti-oppressive goals in relation to the many identities and practices that interlock to shape the character of different gendered experiences.

If we recognize that people are sexed in particular, culturally specific ways, then we know when they experience the labor market as, say, a woman, it makes sense to organize as women workers and fight for unionization on the basis of this shared discrimination. In such a case, I would agree that it wouldn't make sense for a man to lead this kind of effort. He should listen to what the mobilizing women are asking of him, try to help based on what they've asked, and check with them to make sure his efforts are in line with their goals.

But if we're thinking about "feminism" in terms of the infinite range of possible feminist projects, then if boys and men should be supporting only in particular ways but never defining or leading, I wonder where this leaves men who care about gender politics? Similarly, I wonder where this conception of feminism leaves those whose gendered experiences can't be described by a conception of "what men should do" and "what women should do," such as trans people, genderqueer people, non-gendered people, Two-Spirit people, and so on? I worry about how excluding men from self-defining as feminists can reify gender boundaries, and I admit, I worry about the way it might just flip the gender hegemony on its head, inverting the power imbalance—even if that would only affect small pockets of an otherwise trenchantly patriarchal world. I also worry because I have this gut feeling that male feminists are vital to normalizing feminist ideas among other men, especially the many whose acculturation predisposes them to ignore feminist women's voices because it has misled them to believe that being feminist means being anti-man. (For some discussion on this, check out another Bitch blogger's post and the comment thread).

My position right now is that it's crucial that as we work to produce ourselves and others as people with critical consciousness—especially in schools, and not just in Women's and Gender Studies classes—and that a feminist consciousness is a vital part of that for people of all genders and sexes. But all learning is a process, so I look forward to you challenging or complicating my views!

Previously: Activist Quandaries and the Benefit of the Doubt; Looks Ain't Everything, But it Ain't Wrong to Look

Also check out this Bitch article about masculinities and anti-sexism by Shira Tarrant: "Guy Trouble"

Comments

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As a straight white male who

As a straight white male who considers himself a radical feminist I have grappled with the issues of this subject for quite some time. In particular, what is the role that a feminist male can take in the movement? In my opinion, no matter how much Feminist theory a man can consume, it can never substitute for the real experience of being a woman living in the patriarchy. It is never a place for a man, no matter how good intentioned, to lecture a non-feminist woman about Feminism. Instead, and I think the few male feminist theorists out there are doing this, male feminists should be concentrating on how the patriarchy negatively affects men, what we can do to change it, and deconstructing masculinity. We should be using our experience as men to teach other men about how our culture has taught us to use violence to control. We should be teaching men what rape is, and what we can do to stop it. We should be teaching men about how the use of pornography is degrading and is a reflection of the rape culture we live in. We should be teaching men about how our culture has taught us to not listen to women's concerns, to children, or even to other men (did I just allude to a paradox?). We should be teaching men about how Feminism ultimately aims to create a society where there is no gender, just human beings. In short, men should be teaching men.

Perhaps, in the future, we can have the situation where men can be leaders of the feminist movement. But we have far too much work to do until that happens. As anyone who has been in the activist community can attest to, the desire for control and dominance is so ingrained in men, that they ultimately exercise their privilege whenever possible. I am sure their are men that are capable of leading without dominating, but they are a rare breed.

We all live in the patriarchy.

Thanks for your excellent

Thanks for your excellent comment about male responsibility. I really wish that more men took on the role of mentoring other men, even in small everyday ways. It goes back to that idea that remaining silent during a crime makes you complicit to the crime.

I also agree that having a man lead a feminist group gets to be a tricky area, but I also don't think it's an entirely black-and-white line there.

I think you're bang on with

I think you're bang on with your paradox, Andy. When I first read your comment, I found myself thinking that there are an alarming number of non-feminist and even vehemently anti-feminist women, as well as feminist women who will still fall into patterns of dominance and control - and that I don't want to positively essentialize women as pacifistic or naturally more egalitarian, either. But as I read again, I saw that of course you weren't talking about gendered leadership in general, but within specifically feminist projects. I think you're right about the ways in which feminist men can act as positive leaders to other men at the same time that it appears, at this historical juncture, that they ought not to be the ones defining goals for feminist projects. Yet even as that makes sense to me, I'm still not sure where that leaves trans people and people who aren't either male or female - whether the logic of men not defining feminist goals either accounts for the equal right of determination for these folks, or whether it might relegate them to a second class position within feminism, where they lack the female credentials to determine its goals. But maybe I'm thinking about this too abstractly! The question might be transformed in practical application considering real individuals with real histories.

Not really sure how I posted

Not really sure how I posted twice. But one more thing: Men need to listen to women. As I said before, women's experiences are vital to understanding the patriarchy.

Links are broken in original

Links are broken in original post... eager to read source material so please fix.

Sorry about that,

Sorry about that, Anonymous!

Here's a link to the bell hooks work I was thinking of, which is called Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism http://www.amazon.ca/Aint-Woman-Black-Women-Feminism/dp/089608129X

There's tons and tons of related material that can be easily searched.

The Cherrie Moraga link was just to her website: http://www.cherriemoraga.com/

But a great piece to read would be This Bridge Called My Back, edited with Gloria Anzaldua: http://www.amazon.ca/This-Bridge-Called-My-Back/dp/091317503X

The link to the other Bitch blogger was a post about something Lady Gaga said, where she proclaimed she wasn't a feminist because she loves men: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/lady-gaga-im-not-a-feminist-i-hail-men-i-love-men

And the Shira Tarrant piece should be here: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/guy-trouble

I hope these work!

"And when something makes me

"And when something makes me uncomfortable, I know I need to understand it better."

...That's the kind of thinking that keeps me coming back to Bitch Blogs. It's a wonderful statement. I wish more people adopted that approach as an alternative to "it's different! kill it with fire!"

"I wonder where this conception of feminism leaves those whose gendered experiences can’t be described by a conception of “what men should do” and “what women should do,” such as trans people, genderqueer people, non-gendered people, Two-Spirit people, and so on?"

...That is my fear as well. We already have enough problems with the gender binary, which is partly why we have the concept of feminism to begin with, I don't see how it is productive to further that either/or mentality. Particularly when the groups lost in the grey area in between are already marginalized.

My belief is that male feminists are not trying to appropriate feminism from women, they are merely trying to show support for women and the idea of treating people with respect regardless of gender. The male gender can also benefit from feminism, as raising the bar and creating a more human environment makes their world more pleasant as well (I'm speaking in broad stokes here).

The way I see it, we need a lot less Us vs. Them all around. I have not seen evidence that allowing men to identify as feminists hurts women, takes power from women, or damages the feminist movement.

Thanks for your very kind

Thanks for your very kind words, Margarite, and I totally feel you on the "us vs. them" issue. Having experienced some really painful bullying from within radical communities, I'm really preoccupied lately with paying close attention to the distinction between thinking critically and being critical, or being aware of when we are making ethical judgments versus when we are being judgmental.

the distinction between

the distinction between thinking critically and being critical, or being aware of when we are making ethical judgments versus when we are being judgmental.

I don't want to be overly posty here, but I thought that was a great statement on the challenge of balancing inclusion and education with voicing unpopular views or support of marginalized groups.

I think anyone who is interested in bettering themselves or the world around them struggles with that distinction. The difficulty finding that balance is made worse by people who will attempt to exploit that struggle to maintain their own privilege. People in positions of power who dismiss or silence your protest with accusations of criticism or judgment, when you are in fact simply applying critical thinking or ethical judgment.

The Dreaded Intersections

Along with Sharday Mosurinjohn, I have also been experiencing some bullying and marginalization within some activism communities. There is far too much "MY issue is the MOST important, and your issue is OFF TOPIC, and taking attention away from MY issue!" I see a dangerous amount of black-and-white, polarized thinking.
Accepting men as a part of the feminist movement is a matter of individual discretion, in my humble opinion. I honestly believe what we are fighting against is the idea of a gender binary and hierarchy, and to say "all men this" is as bad as "all women that". There are SOME men who genuinely believe in equality, and some men who are interested in using an activist posture for their personal gain.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of crosstalk about who is "allowed" to call themselves a feminist, and who gets to decide what terms to use and when. Devolving into etymology in turn devolves quickly in name-calling.
Then again, I personally HAVE seen the inclusion of *certain* men into a feminist movement lead to huge rifts in the feminist community, the breaking off of large groups of women who felt their safe space had been taken away, and the desperate scrambling to reconcile the damage afterwards.
I and many others have also seen the huge breaks that come at the intersections of feminism. Being a feminist does not mean that you are somehow inherently less prey to various *isms that our society is so very rife with. And it is my experience that calling out these *isms in a feminist community is likely to find oneself pigeonholed as "secretly" against the goals of feminism.
That being said, I think that the next "wave" of feminism, the future, if you will, IS in fact the inclusion of men. The creaking, foundational shift we are seeing take place, especially the backlash against victim-blaming in regards to sexual and domestic violence, is going to center on the education and inclusion of men. In plain terms, we're finally, FINALLY starting to see a shift from "Hey women, protect yourself against gender violence" to "Hey, men! Don't be the perpetrator of gender violence!" This is something I've been waiting to see take hold since I was just a wee teen Riot Grrl. Including men is also essential to burning The Straw Feminist (you know, the hairy, "unfeminine", misandrist over-reactor).
Just my two cents.

I've heard the term "feminist

I've heard the term "feminist ally" used to describe men involved in the movement, and while at first I thought it was condescending, I now see it the same way I see the term "queer ally" - totally accurate and descriptive.

This is a good point,

This is a good point, OpaqueGirl. The logic behind this nomenclature is important, and this term can be really helpful in some situations. In the interest of seeing the most expansive and transformative feminisms possible, I wouldn't want to reject men's self-defining as feminists, either. But I would hope that the people in their lives hold them accountable to acting and speaking in feminist ways. I hope this for all of us feminists of other genders and sexes, too.

For interest's sake, Gayge, of the blog Radical Masculinity: Masculinity and Feminism has offered an interesting critique of the term ally here: http://radicalmasculinity.blogspot.com/2008/09/can-we-stop-using-term-ally.html

Rachel McCarthy James over at the blog Deeply Problematic, has also offered an analysis of claiming the term ally versus having the term ally ascribed to you:
http://www.deeplyproblematic.com/2009/11/why-term-ally-is-not-mine-to-apply.html

Thank you for those

Thank you for those additional links. The first one did not work for me (page not found?), but I found some interesting insights in the second. I particularly liked this:

"My whole point is that it’s not my language to decide. The language that folks without privilege use in discussing their lack of privilege and others’ use of privilege is theirs to determine."

I like OpaqueGirl's suggestion of "feminist ally" or "queer ally." However, I also want to try to better inform myself as to what those terms might mean to others. It makes me a bit sad that we are at such a loss for proper language in these situations that even trying to express respect or support becomes problematic. (I can't even begin to get into the awkwardness I have, as a White person, trying to discuss race respectfully. Every option seems as inappropriate as another.) Language is a reflection of our culture and values. When we don't even have appropriate language for discussion it further illustrates the extent of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.

The link didn't work for me

The link didn't work for me either! But when I clicked on the blog title in the "page not found" window, it took me to the right post. Super weird. I think if you just search it, you can easily find it that way. It's a very interesting piece.

And your points are fantastic - I want to build on these in my next post!

Thanks for the tip on the

Thanks for the tip on the link. Doh! for overlooking the obvious on my part. I don't agree with all that the writer says there, but they make some interesting and thought-provoking points.

From the blog: "Ally is an inherently problematic. It: ... is just part of being a decent human being."

That reminded me of this gif clip of a speech by Anne Hathaway on the subject of gay rights, where she states “I’m not being brave, I’m being a decent human being.”

Again, this seems to go back to language failing us, where we lack the proper vocabulary to express our beliefs or support in a way that doesn't cause further offense. "Feminist-friendly" or "queer-friendly" doesn't really cut it either because it indicates a passive position. Feminist-friendly sounds like, "I don't take a stand against sexism when I see it, but I have feminist friends. And I try not to make rape jokes around them."

One could argue that we need a set of terms to indicate someone's level of commitment: [blank]-friendly... [blank]-ally... [blank]-activist. However, I think that such labels can unwittingly further the problem by suggesting that it's perfectly fine to sit by and allow sexism (or racism, etc.) to continue -- such as being feminist-friendly -- as long as you aren't actively making sexist statements. In other words, tier labeling can be mistaken as a free-pass to alleviate one's guilt without actually doing anything, and result in a bargaining down of what constitutes a decent human being.

Overly specific or tier labeling also seems to inevitably invite debate over where the line between those tiers lies -- is he really a feminist-activist or just a feminist-ally? -- distracting people from the actual issue of sexism. There's also the problem of people who identify as the top tier (say, feminist-activist) being dismissed and attacked as extremists, because acceptance of feminists is fine as long as you don't disrupt the status quo by *doing* something. So we're back to the original problems we have with the word feminist itself.

And your points are fantastic - I want to build on these in my next post!

*blush* thanks, I'm so glad I could help offer something of interest.

"Overly specific or tier

"Overly specific or tier labeling also seems to inevitably invite debate over where the line between those tiers lies -- is he really a feminist-activist or just a feminist-ally? -- distracting people from the actual issue of sexism. "

I think you hit the nail on the head there. Personally, as a man, I don't think we should care whether we're called 'feminists', 'pro-feminist men', 'men in solidarity with feminism' or whatever, as long as we're doing the right things. How you think and how you act are far more important than what label you choose to use. I care about whether I live my life in a way that supports feminism; I don't particularly care whether or not I get to use the specific label 'feminist'.

Wouldn't "female ally" be

Wouldn't "female ally" be closer? And drawn from that, perhaps...feminist?

This is an interesting

This is an interesting question, Anonymous. Although feminisms are multiple and contested, I think that to invoke the term does also invoke some specific meanings which can be generalized. I mean, if I say "feminist ally," I reference a history of specific projects of equality, etc. Or at least I reference the most general, basic principle of "justice-oriented social change with regard to gender issues." But if I said "female ally," I'm not sure what I would mean. I would be concerned about conflating feminist thought with only woman-identified people, and I would worry about homogenizing females as a "group." I don't know that there's anything on such a large level of analysis (ie. "all females") that I could say without drawing false commonalities, and collapsing a lot of vital distinctions.

It shouldn't matter

It shouldn't matter if you are male or female because, like you said, being feminist is about reaching equality for ever gender known to man. I do agree with the poster below me, man should take the opportunity to teach other men about how our society is negatively affecting them. One of my friends said that she hated feminist because the divide. I do believe that when in our own group they are women who do nothing but make more harmful stereotypes about what an appropriate feminist should be. Those types of women are also the ones that make black feminist choice race over gender and man off put the idea of being labeled a feminist. It's about showing the world what the REAL feminist movement is about and showing how it's a move accepting place then outsiders would think.